Chapter 12 Bankruptcy – Eligibility & Discharge

The chapter of the Bankruptcy Laws Code providing for adjustment of debts of a “family farmer,” or a “family fisherman” as those terms are defined in the Bankruptcy Code. It is known as Family Farmer Bankrupty or Family Fisherman Bankruptcy. Bankruptcy lawyers can help navigate unique filing proceedings and assist in tailoring a customized program for your case.

Chapter 12 is designed for “family farmers” or “family fishermen” with “regular annual income.” It enables financially distressed family farmers and fishermen to propose and carry out a plan to repay all or part of their debts. Under chapter 12, debtors propose a repayment plan to make installments to creditors over three to five years. Generally, the plan must provide for payments over three years unless the court approves a longer period “for cause.” But unless the plan proposes to pay 100% of domestic support claims (i.e., child support and alimony) if any exist, it must be for five years and must include all of the debtor’s disposable income. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years.

Chapter 12 Eligibility & Qualifications

In tailoring bankruptcy law to meet the economic realities of family farming and the family fisherman, chapter 12 eliminates many of the barriers such debtors would face if seeking to reorganize under either chapter 11 or chapter 13 bankruptcy of the Bankruptcy Code. For example, chapter 12 is more streamlined, less complicated, and less expensive than chapter 11, which is better suited to large corporate reorganizations. In addition, few family farmers or fishermen find chapter 13 to be advantageous because it is designed for wage earners who have smaller debts than those facing family farmers. In chapter 12, Congress sought to combine the features of the Bankruptcy Code which can provide a framework for successful family farmer and fisherman reorganizations.

The Bankruptcy Code provides that only a family farmer or family fisherman with “regular annual income” may filing for bankruptcy relief under chapter 12. The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that the debtor’s annual income is sufficiently stable and regular to permit the debtor to make payments under a chapter 12 plan. But chapter 12 makes allowance for situations in which family farmers or fishermen have income that is seasonal in nature. Relief under chapter 12 is voluntary, and only the debtor may file a petition under the chapter.

A debtor cannot file under chapter 12 (or any other chapter) if during the preceding 180 days a prior bankruptcy petition was dismissed due to the debtor’s willful failure to appear before the bankruptcy courts or comply with orders of the court or was voluntarily dismissed after creditors sought relief from the bankruptcy courts to recover property upon which they hold liens.

How Chapter 12 Bankruptcy Works

A chapter 12 case begins by filing a petition with the bankruptcy court serving the area where the individual lives or where the corporation or partnership debtor has its principal place of business or principal assets. Unless the court orders otherwise, the debtor also shall file with the court (1) schedules of assets and liabilities, (2) a schedule of current income and expenditures, (3) a schedule of executory contracts and unexpired leases, and (4) a statement of financial affairs. A husband and wife may file a joint petition or individual petitions.

As of October 17, 2005, the courts must charge a $200 case filing fee and a $39 miscellaneous administrative fee. Normally the fees should be paid to the clerk of the court upon filing. With the court’s permission, however, they may be paid in installments. The number of such installments is limited to four and the debtor must make the final installment no later than 120 days after filing the petition. For cause shown, the court may extend the time of any installment, provided that the last installment is paid not later than 180 days after the filing of the petition. The debtor may also pay the $39 administrative fee in installments. If a joint petition is filed, only one filing fee and one administrative fee are charged. Debtors should be aware that failure to pay these fees may result in dismissal of the case.

Filing the petition under chapter 12 “automatically stays” (stops) most collection actions against the debtor or the debtor’s property. Filing the petition does not, however, stay certain types of actions. The stay arises by operation of law and requires no judicial action. As long as the stay is in effect, creditors generally cannot initiate or continue any lawsuits, wage garnishments, or even telephone calls demanding payments. The bankruptcy clerk gives notice of the bankruptcy case to all creditors whose names and addresses are provided by the debtor.

A chapter 12 bankruptcy plan usually lasts three to five years. It must provide for full payment of all priority claims, unless a priority creditor agrees to different treatment of the claim or, in the case of a domestic support obligation, unless the debtor contributes all “disposable income” – discussed below – to a five-year plan.

Secured creditors must be paid at least as much as the value of the collateral pledged for the debt. One of the features of Chapter 12 is that payments to secured creditors can sometimes continue longer than the three-to-five-year period of the plan. For example, if the debtor’s underlying debt obligation was scheduled to be paid over more than five years (i.e., an equipment loan or a mortgage), the debtor may be able to pay the loan off over the original loan repayment schedule as long as any arrearage is made up during the plan.

The plan does not have to pay unsecured claims in full, as long as it commits all of the debtor’s projected “disposable income” (or property of equivalent value) to plan payments over a 3 to 5 year period ,and as long as the unsecured creditors are to receive at least as much as they would receive if the debtor’s nonexempt assets were liquidated under chapter 7 bankruptcy. “Disposable income” is defined as income not reasonably necessary for the maintenance or support of the debtor or dependents or for making payments needed to continue, preserve, and operate the debtor’s business.

Chapter 12 Bankruptcy Discharge

The debtor will receive a discharge after completing all payments under the chapter 12 plan as long as the debtor certifies (if applicable) that all domestic support obligations that came due before making such certification have been paid. The discharge has the effect of releasing the debtor from all debts provided for by the plan allowed under section 503 or disallowed under section 502, with limited exceptions. Those creditors who were provided for in full or in part under the plan may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect the discharged obligations.

Certain categories of debts are not discharged in chapter 12 proceedings. Those categories include debts for alimony and child support; money obtained through filing false financial statements; debts for willful and malicious injury to person or property; debts for death or personal injury caused by the debtor’s operation of a motor vehicle while the debtor was intoxicated; and debts from fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement or larceny. The bankrupcy law regarding the scope of a chapter 12 discharge is complex, however, and debtors should consult competent legal counsel in this regard prior to filing. Those debts which will not be discharged should be paid in full under a plan. With respect to secured obligations, those debts may be paid beyond the end of the plan payment period and, accordingly, are not discharged.

Chapter 12 Bankruptcy Hardship Discharge

The court may grant a “hardship discharge” to a chapter 12 debtor even though the debtor has failed to complete plan payments. Generally, a hardship discharge is available only to a debtor whose failure to complete plan payments is due to circumstances beyond the debtor’s control and through no fault of the debtor. Creditors must have received at least as much as they would have received in a chapter 7 liquidation case, and the debtor must be unable to modify the plan. For example, injury or illness that precludes employment sufficient to fund even a modified plan may serve as the basis for a hardship discharge. The hardship discharge does not apply to any debts that are nondischargeable in a chapter 7 case.